Is a Psion electronic personal organiser the perfect product in a bewildering world? It would seem so - the company has just declared record profits. By William Harston
"I use it all the time," a colleague said when refusing to lend me his Psion Organiser. "It's wonderful. You can key in the name `Tom' and it'll give you the names and addresses of everyone you know named Tom." I asked whether he often found this useful, or whether he had ever actually forgotten the surname of anyone he knew named Tom. "Well, no," he replied. "I use it mostly for finding what time it is in different places around the world."

There is no doubt that for the busy person who needs to 'phone a man named Tom Something in Kuala Lumpur without waking him in the middle of the Malaysian night, a Psion Organiser is the perfect accessory. And if it is the middle of the night in Malaysia, you could even send Tom a fax instead by plugging your organiser into a telephone socket.

Personally, I have always preferred a Letts Organiser. With its energy- free 7-day Ram, 40K Rom, dual optic interface and docking facility with state-of-the-art natural intelligence processing power, my pocket diary fulfils my needs very well. It even contains the 'phone numbers of several people named Tom and they were all entered into its memory without having to fiddle with a keyboard make for Lilliputian fingers.

I found it particularly useful once at the end of a meeting in the late 1980s when we came to discuss the date for the next meeting. One man ostentatiously whipped out his Psion Organiser Mark One and held us all up for ages while he went laboriously through each day in the following month to find out his appointments. Computers somehow never seem to match the speed of a finger flicking through pages.

Personal organisers have come a long way since then, with the highly versatile Psion Series 3 leading the field. Yet even in the early days, the user-unfriendly electronic organiser was seen as indispensable by the gadget-buying classes. It was the ultimate expression of one-upmanship compared with mere Filofax owners. It was, and remains, the perfect palliative for anyone who experiences withdrawal symptoms when travelling between home computer and work terminal. Considerably less bulky than a laptop, yet promising the full delights of word-processing, database, road map, phrase books in a dozen languages, and a host of other facilities you feel might come in useful one day, the Psion Organiser is the thinking man's security blanket.

The secret of Psion's success has been two-pronged: a brilliant, innovative capacity to stay ahead of its competitors and a subtle sense of the changing tastes in technological fashion. It was Psion which, soon after it was founded in 1980, produced "Exchange", one of the earliest integrated packages of business software for the home PC. Around the same time, they also made a habit of winning the world microprocessor chess championships with one of the first programs that could give master players a run for their money.

When the Organiser was first launched, as a rather cumbersome little box like an early mobile telephone, Marks & Spencer saw its potential and bought one for every checkout-point in their stores. Stock-control then became a simple matter of downloading the data from each check-out on to a single database. In various parts of the country milkmen also began using them in a worthy attempt to start charging people for the correct number of pints each week.

With the rapid development of electronic communications, however, that and many similar corporate uses became outmoded, but Psion, led by its imaginative chairman David Potter, was always ready with a new product to fill another perceived need. In 1989, he launched the MC range, leading the world into the era of "notebook" computers. It was, nevertheless, an expensive mistake, because it lacked word-processing facilities, which Psion's Japanese and American imitators rapidly introduced. In 1991, the company went into the red and the share price collapsed.

Psion bounced back with the Series 3 in 1993, since when its profits and share price have soared - or psoared as the business pages of most newspapers seem unable to resist putting it. It truly is a remarkable toy which, a few years ago, would have been undreamt of outside the Starship Enterprise. The size of a slim cigarette case, both compact and elegantly designed, it holds the promise of being a complete pocket office. It also offers compatibility with most computers and major word-processing software, which gives its owners the possibility of carrying a copy of their current projects with them wherever they go.

The resulting feeling of security has given owners of the Series 3, and similar products from other makers, a unique sense of affection for their palm-top computers. "Divorce I could contemplate," wrote Isobel Hilton in these pages two years ago, "but losing my Series 3, that's another matter." But what are these splendid toys really for?

The electronic organiser, like its progenitor the Filofax, offers the promise of organisation - names and anniversaries remembered, appointments kept, order preserved in an increasingly complex world. If you enter an appointment into your Psion Series 3, you can even get it to bleep at you to ensure you don't miss it. It is the perfect pocket personal assistant. But as everyone knows, you only write things down so that you can forget them.

You can be sure that the average Psion Organiser owner still misses as many meetings and forgets as many birthdays as he or she used to. For an Organiser is a tool for the disorganised. There is a theory that the people with the tidiest desks are the ones with the most disorganised minds, and those of us with papers strewn all over the place, and everything kept in jumbled heaps, are the only ones truly able to impose order on our surroundings. It's those poor, tidy people who like to keep their lives neatly packaged in their Organisers. So they can find the name of that nice man who came to fix the pipes last winter. I can tell them his name: it was Tom.

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